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Battles Over Florida's Political Maps Brew In Federal Courts

Florida Senate

The legal arguments about Florida's political maps continue to mushroom.

While the Florida Supreme Court and the Legislature grapple with how congressional districts will be drawn, more legal fights are building in federal courts.

Voting-rights groups Friday formally sought to intervene in a federal lawsuit filed this month by Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who is among the most-outspoken opponents of a redistricting process spurred by the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" requirements. The groups, which helped spearhead voter approval of the requirements in 2010, argued in a court document that Brown's position in the case would "eviscerate the Fair Districts amendments."

Also late last week, a coalition that includes state Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach, filed a separate lawsuit in federal court alleging that the Fair Districts amendments — and the way they have been carried out — violate constitutional free-speech and due-process rights.

That case stems, at least in part, from a series of decisions by the Supreme Court and legislative leaders to try to limit the influence of political operatives in drawing districts. While much of the attention on such issues has involved Republican operatives, the coalition also includes two Alachua County Democrats who echo Brown's arguments that revamping her district could affect the ability of black voters to elect a candidate of their choice.

"The cumulative effect of the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation and application of Florida's redistricting amendments ensures that the amendments violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,'' said the lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court in Pensacola. "This interpretation forces private citizens to run the gauntlet of vexatious litigation, and public censure and ridicule when choosing to engage in political speech or petitioning of their government."

The moves in federal court came as the Florida Supreme Court considers how to handle the Legislature's inability this month to agree on a congressional redistricting plan. Lawmakers were called into a special session after the Supreme Court ruled in July that the current map violates the Fair Districts requirements.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, who has presided over a long-running legal fight about the congressional map, looked to the Supreme Court for guidance after the special session collapsed. As of Monday morning, the Supreme Court had not issued a decision about how the redistricting process will move forward.

Even if the wrangling in the Supreme Court and the Legislature gets resolved, however, it appears that the legal disputes will continue in federal courts. Also, lawmakers will start another special session in October to redraw state Senate districts under the Fair Districts requirements, which could spawn more litigation.

A three-judge panel has been appointed to hear Brown's challenge to the redistricting process. Brown represents Congressional District 5, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando. The Florida Supreme Court has directed that the district should instead run from Jacksonville to the Tallahassee area — changes that Brown contends would violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

"The drawing and redrawing of Congresswoman Brown's district, as required by the Florida Supreme Court's opinion, carries with it the very real and imminent possibility of Congresswoman Brown's constituents being deprived of the ability to elect a representative of their choice,'' said Brown's lawsuit, filed Aug. 12 in federal court in Tallahassee. "Her district — often criticized for its shape — is a minority access district — a district where minorities have the greatest chance of electing representatives of their choice."

But in seeking to intervene in the case Friday, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause and other supporters of the Fair Districts requirements pointed to the potential effects of keeping Brown's district with the current north-south configuration from Jacksonville to Orlando. The federal court had not ruled as of Monday morning on the motion to intervene.

"The north-south version of District 5 is a vestige of Florida's partisan past that is grossly non-compact, divides every county that it touches, destroys the … compliance of surrounding districts, and marginalizes minority voters by concentrating them in a single district, rather than the two minority opportunity districts that the east-west version of District 5 allows to be created,'' the Friday filing said. "The benefits of overpacking African-American voters into a single district inure directly to the Republican Party and plaintiff (Brown), as the incumbent in District 5."

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.